There’s something very nice about a real vegetable garden with carrots all in rows, tomatoes tall and proud, and soil rich with compost and dark brown like a Midwestern cornfield.
First Lady Michelle Obama, who planted a vegetable garden at the White House, has fueled a hunger for having a pick-your-own patch. The quandary for interested Washingtonians: How to grow vegetables in a normal-size back yard where you also want trees and flowers?
No worries. Even if your yard is a balcony, you can grow vegetables.
Darby Zimmermann, manager of Thanksgiving Farms and Orchard in Adamstown, Maryland, has plenty of planting space, but she also likes to grow vegetables and herbs in pots tucked among the perennials in her garden. And—a heresy in some circles—she mixes flowers and vegetables in the same pot.
If you can grow petunias, you can grow vegetables. Here’s how.
As Tasty As They Look
If you worry that a vegetable garden will give your yard an unsophisticated look, don’t fear. Vegetables can be ornamental as well as useful.
Two words: Swiss chard.
With its big, dimpled, dark-green leaves and gorgeous stems that can be orange, yellow, white, or red, it’s a plant that would look at home beside a Caribbean villa. Chard can be harvested late into the fall, and it tastes divine prepared in any number of ways, including sautéed in olive oil with garlic and pine nuts and served with pasta. Last summer I grew a variety called Bright Lights in a planter outside my kitchen.
Although all fruits and vegetables theoretically want full sun, my chard was growing in a place that gets only a few hours of direct sunlight in the morning. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and melons will be puny in less than full sun, but leafy greens like beets and kale will be fine in less than all-day sun, as will the little lettuces and herbs sold as mesclun.
Mesclun is another example of an edible growing thing that’s also beautiful. Try it in the garden as a groundcover under the sunny side of a tree or around a pretty pot full of spring onions. The deep green of the upright onions next to multicolored frills of tonight’s salad is as pretty as any pot of flowers.
Despite the folklore, most vegetables are easy to grow. Tomatoes, peppers, beans, eggplant, squash, pumpkins, onions, and leaf lettuces are especially easy, as are most herbs. Carrots might be stunted if they have to work their way down through heavy clay soil, but they’ll thrive in raised beds and pots.
All of these things and thousands more are available as seeds from catalogs and garden centers or online. Try cooksgarden.com, territorialseeds.com, or johnnyseeds.com. Garden centers have begun carrying starts—small plants suitable for planting in early May—of all kinds of vegetables including heritage or old-fashioned varieties.
Right Soil and Water
Vegetables will grow in the soil you have, but they’ll be more robust and healthy in compost-rich soil. Compost adds nutrients and lightens clay soil, making it easier for everything to grow. (For tips on making your own compost, see page 155.)
If you’re using pots, buy potting soil that’s certified organic—you’re going to be eating what comes from that soil.
One of the virtues of pots is that they can go anywhere in the garden. Move them to maximum sun or to fill a vacant spot. Pots full of herbs could be by the back door. Make sure you have a way to water easily, because most pots dry out quickly, sometimes in a single day in hot sun.
A solution is self-watering pots sold at most garden centers and online. My experience is that these keep a sun-drenched planter moist for about two weeks. Most have a chamber at the bottom that you keep full of water; some have a pop-up indicator to tell you when the soil is thirsty.
Adding compost to any potting soil will make it more water-retentive. If you buy bagged compost, make sure it’s organic.
Just Like Grandma
For years I’d grown vegetables and herbs scattered around my garden. Last year I decided I wanted one big rectangular garden like my grandma had. She also had an acre for vegetables, but that’s another story.
Because my soil is not naturally great and because I had several square yards of weed grass where it didn’t belong, I decided to solve both problems by installing a raised bed. My bed, which came unassembled from naturalyards.com, is made of cedar and is 4 feet by 8 feet by 11 inches high. It cost about $300 with shipping.
We mowed the weed grass short, laid down weed barrier, and then put together the cedar bed. It was as easy as advertised.
Filled with a rich topsoil-and-compost mixture, the bed produced enough tomatoes (four varieties), hot peppers, carrots, pumpkins, radishes, French filet beans, and herbs to keep us happy all summer.
The pumpkins I grew, Rouge Vif D’Etampes, were bright orange, heavily lobed, and wider than high. My vines produced only half a dozen pumpkins, but I’ve never been more thrilled with anything in my garden.